By Jason “Uncle Jay” Cicalese
"Return of the Jedi,” the third film in George Lucas’ original “Star Wars” trilogy, is celebrating its 35th birthday today. It was ‘the’ film that every “Star Wars” fan was waiting for. “The Empire Strikes Back” truly left us kids hangin’: Vader confessing he’s Luke’s Poppa; Han Solo getting frozen in carbonite; and just who is “The Other” that Yoda is speaking of? And all of this is topped with the fact that the rebels get their asses handed to them, big time. As stated in my memoir of “Empire,” to a 7-year old, this is a pretty harsh cliffhanger, especially when you’re told that you won’t know the answers till you’re 10!!
As most know, “Star Wars” meant the world to me back then. I slept, ate and drank the 'Wars'. I had just about every action figure, playset and vehicle; I’d dress up like Darth Vader and jump off the kitchen table and beat the hell out of my cousins; you get the point. However, by the time 1983 rolled around, sure I was still a kid, but growing up in Newark, you tend to perhaps grow up a tad bit faster…in the form of a wise-ass…and I got ballsy at 9½ years of age.
May 24, 1983. Tuesday. 7:30pm. Tomorrow was the big day! The day I’ve waited three extra long hard years for! “Star Wars III” (as many referred to it back then) was finally upon us, and I had a top-secret plan! I called my friends Blondie (who was 11), and Jose (who was 10) and told them my bright idea. They thought it was genius and they were all for it. You see, my mother promised she would take me, and my two cousins to see “Jedi” that following Saturday, the matinee showing. The 25th was a Wednesday, school was still in session, my mom worked and wasn’t fond on going to the movies on weeknights, so there was no way I could see the movie before then. But there was NO WAY I could wait three more fuckin’ days! I needed to see that movie tomorrow somehow. It didn't help that there weren't any movie theaters in the Ironbound at the time. My big plan: to play hooky from school and, trek out see the movie.
May 25, 1983…a beautiful warm and sunny Wednesday. I got up at 6:30am like I always did, took a shower, got dressed. My Mom left for work at 7:30am, and I would usually leave at 8am and walk to school. But 8am came and went that morning, I was still home. The newspaper was on the table as usual; I found the movie ad for "Jedi" and underneath was the showtimes. As luck would have it, it was playing in the next town over, a 45-minute walk (for a kid, it felt like double that). I called Jose and he came over at 8:30am, Blondie (who always ran late) came at 9am. The three of us stayed off the main streets, to avoid the “hooky bus,” and took the side streets to the Jackson Street Bridge, the entryway to Harrison, NJ…over the bridge, down Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard, till we hit the Warner Theatre. There weren’t many people waiting in line when we got there, maybe six or seven. But when we got on line, we noticed that more and more people, with kids mind you) were appearing. We each paid our $2.50 (those were the days, right?) to the 11:45am show and bammm…we were in. We ran through that lobby, like William Wallace charging the British. We got the best seats in the house. We even yelled at the adults who tried to sit in front of us! Hey, we were little, no way were we gonna have a huge melon and quaff-doo where a Star Destroyer is supposed to be. Thankfully, four other kids around our age sat in front of us. We spoke to them briefly; they were kids from Kearny, NJ with an adult chaperone. I remember distinctively that one was a girl named Stephanie, she was real cute and the three of us were trying to win her over (we were early starters, haha).
The lights dimmed, we all clapped, and the coming attractions came on. I remember the trailers being “WarGames,” “Krull,” and “Octopussy”…and then the 20th Century Fox Fanfare kicked in…I remember Jose, who sat next to me on the right shaking me in excitement…”Can you believe it?!”
And we sat back and watched, “Return of the Jedi.”
Predictably, we loved every second of it (except for Boba Fett’s demise, even for a kid, that was weak). After hearing about these characters over a span of two films, we finally got to see Jabba the Hutt and The Emperor (the cameo in “Empire” doesn’t really count). We watched Han Solo get defrosted; Yoda confirming Vader as Pops; Obi-Wan using a fucked up point of view to explain things; Luke and Leia are twins (so it’s ok to kiss your sister?); Vader has good in him; primitive warrior Teddy Bears takin' out the Empire; and Admiral Ackbar confirms that he’s the baddest muthafuckin’ Rebel in the universe!
These days, "Jedi" gets criticized as being the weakest of the original trilogy. That there were too many muppet-type creatures and teddy bears, and that Lucas truly played it safe at the end. None of the major heroes die (except for Yoda, who dies of old age), and everything is solved cut and dry. For the most part, "Jedi" is indeed the weakest of the original three, but it's still a great movie and a remarkable sci-fi adventure. In defense against what most fans complain about, I always thought the Jabba scene was intriguing...you're really in this lowlife underworld with all these weird and undesirable characters, with very extreme voyeur tastes in death (watching and cheering people getting eaten alive). A little creepy if you think about it. As far as the Ewoks are concerned, many called that a huge marketing maneuver to sell toys. I think that a primitive warrior tribe, taking on the hi-tech Empire was kind of cool...in an odd-way, it's old school versus the new. So what if they're cute and cuddly? I’ll take Ewoks over Gungans any fuckin’ day! The overall story is solid, it never loses its structure and the special effects, sets and creatures still hold up to this day. "Return of the Jedi" is still awesome!!
My con-artist skills were pretty damn advanced for a kid shy of 10, but the fact that this was “Star Wars”...I truly had no problems acting excited all over again for my mother when she took me to the Saturday matinee three days later, because I really was excited to see it again.
In closing, I have to say, I look at a 10-year old now, and I say to myself, “what the fuck was I thinking,” anything could have happened. But it didn’t, we three little peckerheads pulled it off. I lucked out really. Truancy officers never came to my house, and my teacher never questioned my “sickness plea” the next day. This was a different time, you got away with a lot back then. Jose did indeed get busted by his parents for this stunt. He went to a Catholic school where they were a bit more strict, and they called his house. Since he was Portuguese, his Dad beat the hell out of him. Jose simply told me, “It was worth it.” This is the same guy that went to juvenile hall six years later for stealing a car.
Anyway, this is a cherished memory of mine and that’s what I was doing exactly 35 years ago today!
May the Force be with you!!